Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Patrick Phillips: Blood at the Root

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What it is: In 1912, white people chased all (really, all) of the black people out of Forsyth County, Georgia. They have not "let" them back into Forsyth County yet. 'Blood at the Root' is the history of an extreme place but also the story of America where white people decide who lives where because of bigotry, misplaced fear and ongoing hatred.

Why you should read it: This is a timely book. Want to know where we came from? Read the book. President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) was all about Jim Crow. As Phillips writes, "Have such a man in the White House emboldened white supremacists across the nation and particularly in the South, which Wilson had once called home." He quotes the director of the IRS in Atlanta: "The are no Government positions for Negroes in the South... A Negro's place is in the cornfield." Sound familiar?

The rest of the book is going to sound familiar, too, if not in the details. The history of Forsyth county is a specific story, and it needs to be told: America's shameful details need to be known: we need to know our history in the fight to move forward.

My "aha" moment:  My mother and I recently took an "Israel/Palestine 101" class through Jewish Voices for Peace (something I recommend if it's available to you).  One of the concepts that I knew about but couldn't previously name was the Nabka- the historical and ongoing displacement of Palestinians. This reign of terror allowed Israelis to seize more and more land and force more and more Palestinians into smaller and smaller discontinuous, crappy, chunks of land. They had no more access to their farms, no more access to water, no access to their families. It is a methodical and intentional process by the state. 

'Blood at the Root' describes a similar, hyperlocal version of white southerners displacing Black people from one county, but it hit me: this is a historical and ongoing process of displacement that happens here, too. The "night riders" in Forsyth county physically forced Black people out of Forsyth, but also terrified them psychologically. These are both tactics in Palestine. And white people made Forsyth unwelcoming for any people of color thinking about coming back, resorting to physical and psychological violence even in recent memory to strangers who had no idea of the history. Black people in Forsyth lost their property (the key image often used in Palestine refers to Palestinians who were forced out of their homes and keep the house keys in the belief that they can return) and pushed into neighboring counties like so many refugees. Their legally owned properties and farms were taken over through extralegal means and are now housing tracts: "with the racial ban still violently enforced, whites could feel confident that black owners would never appear and try to reclaim the land they had left behind."

Maybe it's not surprising to hear that law enforcement in Forsyth was part of the problem. The Sheriff was part of making the (legal) hanging of two black men convicted of a (probably didn't happen) crime into a spectacle (against the instructions of a judge). Later, he would be involved in an illegal racially motivated kidnapping and lynching. The governor was pissed off at the Sheriff, but mostly because the Sheriff was embarrassing: Georgia's reputation was on the line here.

This is not just Forsyth. I think of the gentrification in my own city. In the 1980s, the 980 freeway destroyed West Oakland- tearing apart and decimating the neighborhoods there. The project removed 503 homes, 22 businesses, four churches and 155 trees (see Mercury News). I think about the techbros coming from San Francisco and making Oakland one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Where will the black and brown people whose houses they are buying go? I think of the historical redlining and the subprime mortgages that have already displaced so many of my neighbors. The first was government-sanctioned, but can we really say that the second wasn't? Can we really call Oakland so different than Forsyth or Palestine? There aren't people in hoods chasing out black people, and I'm grateful for that. But over and over, in different eras and in different ways, black and brown people are getting forced out. Do we really think that banks and white people who are now sitting on millions in wealth will turn over their ill-gotten homes?

And I think about the law enforcement situation here. Does Oakland (both the City and the population) *really want police reform? Or are we concerned about how people think of us nationally? Do we really care about crime or just statistics? Do Black lives really matter or is this about getting out of a settlement agreement because it's expensive and annoying? 

Rating: I didn't love this book. Even though it's a short book, I kind of slogged through it. But it's important, and awful. Library material, and worth your time.